ALCESTE, in love with Célimène
PHILINTE, friend of Alceste
ORONTE, in love with Célimène
ELIANTE, Célimène’s cousin
ARSINOE, friend of Célimène
ACASTE, a marquis
CLITANDRE, a marquis
BASQUE, Célimène’s servant
AN OFFICER of the Marshals’ Court
DUBOIS, Alceste’s valet
The Scene is at Paris
Alceste vs Philinte
In act I, scene 1 of The Misanthrope, Alceste, the misanthrope, claims that court is filled with people who praise a person, but find fault with the same person the moment he or she leaves. He is angry with his friend Philinte who has been courteous with a person he barely knows. Were he Philinte, he would hang himself.
Go to, you ought to die for very shame!
Such conduct can have no excuse; it must
Arouse abhorrence in all men of honour.
I see you load a man with your caresses,
Profess for him the utmost tenderness,
And overcharge the zeal of your embracings
With protestations, promises, and oaths;
And when I come to ask you who he is
You hardly can remember even his name!
Your ardour cools the moment he is gone,
And you inform me you care nothing for him!
Good God! ’tis shameful, abject, infamous,
So basely to play traitor to your soul;
And if, by evil chance, I’d done as much,
I should go straight and hang myself for spite.
(Alceste to Philinte, I.1)
Philinte is an honnête homme. He would not tell an ageing Émilie, la vieille Émilie, that the manner in which she uses makeup (le blanc) and behaves (faire la jolie) does not suit an ageing woman:
Quoi ! vous iriez dire à la vieille Émilie
Qu’à son âge il sied mal de faire la jolie,
Et que le blanc qu’elle a scandalise chacun ? (1.i)
[What! would you tell old Emilie
that ’tis unbecoming at her age to play the pretty girl;
or that the paint she wears shocks every one?
Le Misanthrope (I, i)]
The Portrait Scene
http://fresques.ina.fr/jalons/fiche-media/InaEdu05426/le-misanthrope-de-moliere.html (the portrait scene [II, 4], video) FR ❤
ELIANTE, PHILINTE, ACASTE, CLITANDRE, ALCESTE, CELIMENE, BASQUE
Ironically, Alceste is in love with Célimène who enjoys depicting the ills of others. She does so to entertain those who admire her. Célimène is a charming twenty-year-old widow seeking attention and pleasure. In seventeenth-century France, young, and not-so-young, widows were privileged. They could choose to marry or not to marry, and, if they chose to marry, they married a person whom they loved, not a spouse imposed on them by a greedy father.
Her portrait of Alceste is that of a man who is very contrary.
Must not the gentleman needs contradict?
What! Would you have him think like other people,
And not exhibit, in and out of season,
The spirit of gainsaying he’s endowed with?
Others’ opinions are not fit for him,
And he must always hold the opposite,
Because he’d fear to seem like common mortals,
If he were caught agreeing with anyone.
The glory of contradiction charms him so
He often takes up arms against himself
And falls to combating his own beliefs
If he but hears them from another’s lips.
(Célimène to everyone, II.5)
[L’honneur de contredire, a, pour lui, tant de charmes,
Qu’il prend, contre lui-même, assez souvent, les armes ;
Et ses vrais sentiments sont combattus par lui,
Aussitôt qu’il les voit dans la bouche d’autrui.
(Célimène à tous, 2.iv)]
Given his view of society, a world where everyone speaks ill of others, Alceste’s love for Célimène, is incongruous. Destiny has been unkind to him. However, although he is contrary, he does not criticize Célimène in the portrait scene (2.iv). He turns to her admirers and blames them.
Pourquoi s’en prendre à nous ? Si ce qu’on dit, vous blesse,
Il faut que le reproche, à Madame, s’adresse.
[But why blame us? If what is said offends you,
You must address your censures to the lady.
Pour moi, je ne sais pas ; mais j’avouerai, tout haut,
Que j’ai cru, jusqu’ici, Madame sans défaut.
De grâces, et d’attraits, je vois qu’elle est pourvue ;
Mais les défauts qu’elle a, ne frappent point ma vue.
‘Tis not for me to say; still, I’ll declare
That hitherto I’ve found the lady faultless.
Les rieurs sont pour vous, Madame, c’est tout dire ;
Et vous pouvez pousser, contre moi, la satire.
But Alceste loves Célimène and will not criticize her. Éliante, Célimène’s cousin who is very fond of Alceste, tells everyone that persons who are in love do not find faults in the person they love. If a woman is fat, her “carriage” is “majestic.” One likes what could be considered a disadvantage in the eyes of a person who is not “in love.”
[Love is but little subject to such laws,
And lovers always like to vaunt their choice.
Their passion can find naught in her to blame,
For in the loved one, all seems lovable.
They count her faults perfections, and invent
Sweet names to call them by. The pallid maiden
Is like a pure white jasmine flower for fairness;
The frightful dark one is a rich brunette;
The lean one has a figure lithe and free;
The fat one has a fine majestic carriage
The dowdy, graced with little charm, is called
A careless beauty; and the giantess
Appears a goddess to adoring eyes.
The dwarf is deemed a brief epitome
Of heaven’s miracles; the haughty maiden
Is worthy of a crown; the cheat is clever;
The silly dunce, so perfectly good-hearted;
The chatterbox, so pleasantly vivacious;
The silent girl, so modest and retiring.
Thus does a lover, whom true passion fires,
Love even the faults of her whom he admires.
(Éliante to everyone, II.5)
A first reading of Éliante’s tirade may lead to believe Éliante’s tirade excludes Alceste. In act II, scene 1, when Alceste is alone with Célimène, he finds fault with the company Célimène keeps. Alceste and Célimène are alone. Alceste’s belaviour is not courteous. (2.i)
C’est pour me quereller, donc, à ce que je voi,
Que vous avez voulu me ramener chez moi ?
Je ne querelle point ; mais votre humeur, Madame,
Ouvre, au premier venu, trop d’accès dans votre âme ;
Vous avez trop d’amants, qu’on voit vous obséder,
Et mon cœur, de cela, ne peut s’accommoder.
So—’twas to scold at me, apparently,
That you were kind enough to bring me home?
I am not scolding. But your humour, madam,
Gives any and everyone too easy access
Into your heart. You have too many lovers
Besieging you—a thing I can’t endure.
Alceste is jealous. Yet, Éliante’s tirade is about all lovers, including Alceste.
C’est ainsi, qu’un amant, dont l’ardeur est extrême,
Aime, jusqu’aux défauts des personnes qu’il aime.
[Thus does a lover, whom true passion fires,
Love even the faults of her whom he admires.
(Éliante to everyone, II.5)]
Alceste is as Éliante says: blinded by love. As for Alceste, he is vain, which leads him to criticize civil behaviour, because he has no way of knowing whether praise of him is genuine praise or more politeness. He is yet another vaniteux inquiet, vain but uncertain, as Paul Bénichou correctly identifies flawed humanity in Molière’s plays. Moreover, Alceste is rigid, which, according to Henri Bergson, generates laughter. (See Laughter, Wiki2.org.)
Quel avantage a-t-on qu’un homme vous caresse,
Vous jure amitié, foi, zèle, estime, tendresse,
Et vous fasse de vous, un éloge éclatant,
Lorsque au premier faquin, il court en faire autant ?
[What use is it to have a man embrace you,
Swear friendship, zeal, esteem, and faithful love,
And loudly praise you to your face, then run
And do as much for any scamp he meets?
Sur quelque préférence, une estime se fonde,
Et c’est n’estimer rien, qu’estimer tout le monde.
[Real love must rest upon some preference;
You might as well love none, as everybody.
Le Misanthrope is a problematic play. Célimène would marry Alceste, but she would not follow him into a desert, a refuge in seventeenth-century France. She is too young.
Moi, renoncer au monde, avant que de vieillir !
Et dans votre désert aller m’ensevelir !
(Célimène, 5, scène dernière)
[What, I renounce the world before I’m old,
And go be buried in your solitude!
(Celimene, V, last scene)]
Yet, the curtain falls on a marriage. Éliante will marry Philinte. Both follow Alceste, so everyone leaves the stage. The curtain falls and nobody is laughing. True to Célimène’s portrait of him, Alceste has taken up arms against himself. Alceste who loves Célimène, who loves him, refuses to marry her.
Moreover, although Alceste is rigid, he shares Philinte’s views, but he will not be tolerant and calm. He will be angry (bile).
Je veux qu’on soit sincère, et qu’en homme d’honneur
On ne lâche aucun mot qui ne parte du cœur.
[Be genuine; and like a man of honour
Let no word pass unless it’s from the heart.
Je prends, tout doucement, les hommes comme ils sont,
J’accoutume mon âme à souffrir ce qu’ils font;
Et je crois qu’à la cour, de même qu’à la ville,
Mon flegme est philosophe, autant que votre bile.
[I quietly accept men as they are,
Make up my mind to tolerate their conduct,
And think my calmness is, for court or town,
As good philosophy as is your choler.
Structurally, Alceste, as a character, combines several comedic functions. He is the heavy father (the alazôn of Greek comedy) who opposes the marriage of young lovers. But he is also the innamorati of the commedia dell’arte and Atellane farce, not to mention the young lover of Greek Old Comedy (Aristophanes). Finally, he is the eirôn, a role he shares with Philinte. He is all three stock characters of farces. However, Molière’s Misanthrope is not a farce. Or is it? The Misanthrope is une grande comédie (five acts, alexandrine verses [12 syllables], the court). The play also contains “mirrors.” Arsinoé, the prude, is Célimène as she could be at an older age.
This is incomplete, but allow me to quote our colleague David Nicholson (17 February 2019): “Molière’s plays are classics because their themes are universal; they’re at home across oceans and centuries.”
- Molière: Farce and “Grande comédie” (8 May 2016)
- Molière’s Enigmatic Comedies (6 May 2016) ←
- Charles Sorel’s Laws of Gallantry (1 May 2016)
- “Galanterie” & L’Honnête Homme” (16 April 2016
- Fêtes galantes & galanterie (15 April 2016)
- A Few Words on Sprezzatura (21 June 2012)
Sources and Resources
- Charles Sorel’s Les Loix de la galanterie
- Henri Bergson’s Le Rire is a Wikisource ebook FR
- The Misanthrope is a Wikisource publication EN
- Tout Molière is an internet collection of Molière’s play FR
- Molière 21 is a comprehensive internet site devoted to Molière FR/EN
- http://fresques.ina.fr/jalons/fiche-media/InaEdu05426/le-misanthrope-de-moliere.html (the portrait scene [II, 4], video) FR ❤
 Paul Bénichou, Morales du Grand Siècle (Paris : Gallimard, 1948), pp. 295-296.
 Micheline Bourbeau-Walker, LE MISANTHROPE, ou la comédie éclatée, in David Trott & Nicole Boursier, eds. L’Âge du Théâtre en France/The Age of Theater is France (Edmonton: Academic Printing and Publishing, 1988), pp. 53-61.
Love to everyone 💕
© Micheline Walker
20 February 2019